Saturday, October 26, 2013

Interview: Writer Eric Paul Shaffer

Eric Paul Shaffer lives on O'ahu overlooking the Kalihi Valley in Honolulu.  His books of poetry include Lāhaina Noon, Portable Planet, and Living at the Monastery.  His fiction includes the novel Burn & Learn, and he has been honored with numerous awards and fellowships.  Known as "Reckless," he is a charter member of the "Ancient Order of the Fire Gigglers," an aggregation of writers including James Taylor III, John Kain, Kathryn Capels, Michael Adams, Padma Thornlyre, and the members of the publishing collective known as Turkey Buzzard Press, named in admiration and celebration of the work of Lew Welch.  He is an avid fan of the blues, bad science fiction movies, horror novels, five-mile runs, Hawaiian language and culture, star-gazing, contemporary poetry, Hōkū and Nalu (the two wildest cats he's ever known), and, most of all, his wife Veronica.

How would you describe what you do?
             I write poems.  I teach.  I think.  I comment.  I attack.  I disturb.  I annoy.  I commemorate.  I guide.  I commend.  I read.  I respond.  I condemn.  I amplify.  I contradict.  I adjust.  I correct.  I deny.  I confirm.  I observe.  I connect.  I do.  I affirm.

Is this different than what other people think you do?
             Others who write poems are definitely working differently than I am.  Many are doing all I mentioned above and more; many are doing otherwise, elsewise, and lesswise.  The number and character of the responsibilities a writer of poems embodies determine what he or she is doing.  Of all the possibilities for writing, I most want to make literature.  Not every writer does.  Whatever making literature requires, I will do.

How do you know if you’re on the right track with a project?
             I never know.  Writing means bushwhacking through unfamiliar territory with little hope of getting anywhere and little hope of knowing when you do.  The only hopeful sign in the territory is practicing until I have a workable draft.  From there, I go farther: creating a publishable and performable draft.  I’ve gone as far as I can go down the right track when someone turns to me and says, “That’s a good poem.  I read it to my friends.”

How do you go about making choices?
             Choices make me.  We may think we make choices, but as we weather our ages, surroundings, and circumstances, all we seem to do is navigate between the options nearest our particular selves, limited as both are.  From there, we make ourselves with what we come to and what comes to us.
            I love writing because in writing I have the largest, broadest, greatest selection of choices: I am required and allowed to examine and make every choice of word, line break, verse break, figure of speech, sentence structure, detail, narratorial stance, and direction in every poem I write.  In writing, I can even create choices available to no one else, and I make and re-make those choices until I am satisfied for the moment--until there is a new moment.

How do you know when you’re done?
             A writer’s work is never done.  I hear Leonardo da Vinci (although probably at least a hundred others said the same thing) said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”  I laugh every time I hear that.  After all, that observation is not only true of everything, but it is least true of art.  Art is an effort to get something done to perfection, no matter how much time is required, and if a block of marble chipped into a figure, some streaks of paint wiped on a canvas, a bunch of noise arranged symmetrically in the air, or a batch of words inked on a page become art, it’s not because somebody only did just enough work.  Who makes art spends much more time working on that art than anybody else does on anything else.  Any good writer returns to a poem years later just to change a single word because that is what the work requires.  So I repeat: A writer’s work is never done.

What’s your workspace like?
             Veronica and I just moved into a house too small and quirky for most to consider, and the place particularly appealed to me because there is a room at the front of the house with windows on three sides, a tiny view of mountains, a breeze from the sea, and, in this odd little space alone, room for all of my books.  There is light from everywhere, a place for cats to snooze while I work, my angled desk set in the middle of the room, and best of all, a view into the living room and kitchen so that I don’t feel lonely when I’m alone writing.  I can see my wife and cats going about their business while I do my work.  I’m home.

What are your essential tools?
             My essential tools are the poems, classic and contemporary, of my fellow writers of poems.  I read everybody, all the time, which makes me cranky and creative.  As a writer should, I am evaluating the work of everyone around me, and I am learning what I will do with their excellences and excrement.  As my students and peers will tell you, I’ve never been one to suffer bad writing silently, so, as you can imagine, I am popular and beloved.  No matter what, reading as much of the work of others as I can is an essential tool for improving my own work.

What’s the most surprising tool you use?
             I am surprised by what many think is my most surprising tool: my ear.  I write lines only after speaking and listening to them.  Many basic errors of rhythm, wording, and meaning are eliminated by using the ear to create poems.  Of course, using the ear necessitates using the other unsurprising surprising tool: the tongue.  Licking the lines into shape, tasting the words, sending the work tripping, flipping, and skipping across the tongue are all part of writing poems, too, and the ear is the tool by which that work is measured.  The bottom line is this: if the poem doesn’t sound good, it isn’t good.  Listen and listen hard.  You’ll see what I mean.

What was your biggest mistake or the one you learned the most from?
             My life is filled with big mistakes, and I’m certainly not qualified to judge which is biggest.  Here’s a list of my big young mistakes:  I believed literature was important to everybody.  I believed everyone knew gathering money had little to do with success.  I believed cheating was universally condemned.  I believed quality trumped acquaintances.  I believed most people would think carefully, deeply, and frequently, and act on their thinking.  I believed that I could say whatever I meant to say.
            What I have learned from all of these mistakes is that in any world we work to make truly human, they are not mistakes at all, and my responses to these attitudes have led to life and writing strategies with which I deal directly with undermining, overturning, and blind-siding all of the aforementioned and mistaken attitudes.

What do you wish that you would have known earlier?
             I wish I’d known earlier that most people have more bad ideas about what poetry is, what poems are, and what both do than I could ever have imagined.  Had I known, I would have gotten to work sooner.

What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
            “Get a job.”  This advice is contradictory, tangential, or irrelevant to everything significant I’ve ever done in my life.  I need a job, and I need to do my job well, but I need my work more.

What’s the best?
             One day in late December 1986, my writing buddy James Taylor III and I had the astounding audacity to drop in on the poet Philip Whalen in Santa Fe.  We three spent an hour or two talking about anything and everything, about which I remember nothing except Whalen climbing like a skinny, robe-wrapped, bald, white spider across the face of his floor-to-ceiling bookcase to retrieve a book he wanted to read to us.  His last words to us were the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten.  As he closed the door, he smiled and said, “Write when you find work.”  The wisdom in that little joke still cracks me up.

What are you working on now?
             I am reading more poems.  I am writing more poems.  I am building and re-building my sixth manuscript of poetry and offering the book to publisher after publisher.  I am attending and planning public readings of my work and the work of my fellow writers of poems.  I am paying attention to the times and the customs.  I am revising.  I am teaching new writers to read, recognize, and make literature.  I am thinking.  I am watering the avocado tree.  And I am rubbing Hōkū’s tummy while I type with one hand.

For more information on Eric Paul Shaffer

Saturday, October 19, 2013

What I Thought I Would Know By Now

I thought by now, at this point in my life, when I am, by almost any measure, an adult, that I would be untying my shoes before kicking them off.  This always bothered my mother, and she yelled at me frequently about it, upset by the irresponsibility and improperness of the action, the indifference to taking care of my things, and I thought somehow eventually I would change, grow out of the behavior, and become more careful and concerned, but I haven’t.
I thought by now I would know more than I do about how to buy a car, negotiate a loan, pick out fruit, that I would know the names of tools and trees.  I thought I would not only know whether Monaco was a city or a country, but I would have passed through it, speaking whatever language they speak, if not fluently, at least competently, on my way to other places, ones where all the necessary arrangements would be taken care of and ones where absolutely no arrangements had been made and I calmly and confidently improvised.
I thought by now I would no longer be nervous walking into a new bar or restaurant, meeting people, or asking for help.  I thought the phobias and fears and tics, like my dislike of the phone, would lessen rather than increase, that I’d be more generous, more empathetic, more understanding, that I would know who to tip and how much.
I thought by now I would have developed the patience to wait that last ten seconds for the microwave to finish.  I would know where the time went and the water and the elasticity of flesh and friendship.  I thought I would finally be comfortable in my body, and I thought my body would stop changing so much.  I thought by now I would know why toast doesn’t just taste like heated bread, and I would know, if not exactly, at least pretty accurately, what I had been doing with my life and what I was doing and what I was going to do.
I thought by now I would know something.  I thought by now I would know.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The More We Know One Another the Less We Say: The Difficulty with Dialogue

Meeting with students about a film script they’re revising, we discuss the difficulty of writing dialogue.  Specifically, we talk about one issue:  balancing how the characters might talk to one another with what the reader needs to know.
            When people say dialogue is stilted, they usually mean people wouldn’t talk that way to one another.  I frequently see scripts and stories where friends constantly use each other’s names, but, in life, most of us rarely do.  We use the names when we’re talking about them, but not when we’re talking to them.  Or, often the dialogue in a work might be serving purely expository purposes and conveying information that the characters already know, such as,  “Catherine, as your best friend, I think you need to quit this waitressing job that you’ve had for three years to go to college even though I know you’re worried about whether you’re smart enough.”
Friends, or people who have known each other for a long time, have a set of shared experiences, and they use these to develop a language or shorthand.  When I take my children to afternoon swim team practices, we have a choice of three different times.  At first I would text my wife, “At the Y for second practice.”  After awhile this became, “At 2nd practice.”  Then, “2nd.”  Now when my wife receives a text in the afternoon from me that says, “2,” she knows it means, “I have taken our kids to the YWCA for the second practice of their swimming team.”
She also knows this means that we’ll be there for a certain amount of time and that it will have ramifications for our dinner and evening plans.  She has an idea of what we might have done before (nothing if it’s first practice, homework if it’s second).  She knows I might meet certain people – swimmers, families, coaches, and Y goers -- who are usually at that time and place.  And, if I talked to her in the morning about intending to take them to first practice, she knows something has happened to change my thinking and the trajectory of the day.  That “2” conveys an enormous amount of information. However, we’re the only ones who understand it.
            So, the difficulty of writing dialogue is to convey that complexity and richness of relationships while not confusing the reader and viewers.
            Screenwriters are lucky in that film allows the visuals to do this.  One of my favorite scenes in Broadcast News has James Brooks on the phone with his best friend Holly Hunter, and he says something like, “I’ll meet you at that place where we did that thing.”  She understands him perfectly, and the audience does as well.  The dialogue shows their close understanding, and the next scene shows us where they are.
            In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway wrote, "If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.  The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water."
             One way to accomplish this "practice of omission" is to pare down dialogue.  Dialogue doesn't simply convey people’s voices – the way they speak --  but their relationships, and usually the more we know one another, the less we say.  It's not particular works of art, but people themselves that are ice bergs.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

What's For Lunch? and Other Questions from the Audience

            Recently Amy Willoughby-Burle, author of Out Across the Nowhere, asked me about memorable experiences at readings, and it got me thinking about questions I’ve been asked. 

The event was scheduled at a retirement home.  When I arrived, several people already were waiting in the reception room, which was encouraging.  After all, as a poet, I have high hopes regarding turn-outs, but low expectations.  If anyone besides the organizer shows up, I’m happy, (and, sadly, yes, there have been times when it’s just the two of us).  Right before I began, the home’s staff walked and wheeled in more audience members.  One of them, Harold, immediately had a question: "When's lunch? I’m hungry."  He was reminded that they had just eaten.  I gave my reading and people nodded and nodded off, then I asked if there were any questions. "Yes," Harold said, "When's lunch?"  I said that I thought lunch had already been served.  "Well, I'm still hungry," he replied, "I think I have some bananas in my room.  Anybody want to go to my room and eat some bananas?”  At this point a staff member said, "Now Harold, you know you're not allowed to have people in your room anymore." "Well, Goddamnit," Harold said, "I'm hungry.  When's lunch?"
In addition to retirement homes, I’ve done readings in bars, bookstores, visitor centers, malls, parks, restaurants.  I’m willing to try all kinds of events, and, since I sometimes write about wine, my publisher once got us a booth and a reading at a large Health Expo. It seemed a good decision since right before I went on stage it was standing room only with over four hundred people in attendance.  They were there, however, for Jillian Michaels of “The Biggest Loser,” who was scheduled in front of me.  As soon as she finished, everyone left, except for a couple of elderly women and someone breastfeeding a child.  I read a few poems and then one of the women raised a hand and asked, “Is this where the dance troupe is going to perform?  When is that?”
What can be more surprising are questions from people who, supposedly, came specifically to see me.  I once was asked to lead a poetry writing workshop at a library.  The library put it in their newsletter.  When I arrived, the front door had a sign that said, “Poetry Workshop Today with Poet Joe Mills.”  The door to the classroom had a similar sign.  I began, and approximately ten minutes later, a woman raised her hand and said, “I don’t like poetry.  Is that all you’re going to talk about?”  When I said, “Well, yes” (in an oddly apologetic tone).  She asked, “Can’t you do something else?”   
It’s a question that I come back to often.